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If you had been here yesterday

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 9, 2002

There's an old saying among surfers: "You should have seen it yesterday."

No matter how good the waves are, they always were better the day before.

I thought about that recently after getting off the phone with Sam Maisano, who runs Go Fast Fishing out of John's Pass.

"We were coming back from a blackfin tuna trip about 40 miles offshore when we ran across not one but two whales sharks," Maisano said.

About every other summer I get a call from a reader who encounters one of these gentle giants in the waters off Pinellas County.

Although relatives of carnivorous great whites of Jaws fame, whale sharks are docile, capturing food through a filter in the same manner as most whales.

While those gigantic sea mammals have been known to ram boats, whale sharks are more likely to be rammed while they bask on the surface.

Intimidating in size, whale sharks can range in length from 35 to 60 feet. Despite their menacing appearance, it is not uncommon for them to allow divers to hitch a ride.

It has long been a dream of mine to swim with a whale shark, but it is hardly the kind of thing you can plan in advance. Still, I called Capt. Larry Hoffman to see if he wanted to run offshore and look for the sharks.

"Sure," he said. "But you know they might be pretty hard to find."

Hoffman had a good point. I guess Maisano's whale shark was just one of those times when you had to be there.

So I brooded for a while, then started thinking about some of the times I had been in the right place at the right time.

In 1980, when I was a student at South Florida and an inexperienced swamp rat, I paddled with my buddy, Rich Berube, down the Hillsborough River from the Green Swamp to Temple Terrace.

In the predawn darkness on the first day we heard a ruckus and looked over to see a large cat chasing several small pigs along the river bank.

"Did you see that?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said. "Did you see it too."

We went home and told my roommate, a wildlife biologist, that we had seen a Florida panther. He said we were crazy. But years later the Times did several stories on one of the great cats that had been seen in same area. To this day I consider myself blessed to have seen a Florida panther in the wild.

Then I remembered fishing a trout stream near my father's house on Mount Desert Island in Maine about a decade ago. We were walking across a field, and I was complaining to my buddy Harry Allen about a road that had just been put in.

When I was a boy the only way to reach the stream was to hike 2 miles through thick underbrush. As a result, the little creek was loaded with native brook trout.

But as I whined about the loss of a good fishing spot, I heard a shriek and looked up to see two bald eagles locked together plummeting to the earth. They fell for several seconds, and about 10 feet above my head they separated and went in opposite directions.

"What was that all about?" I asked Harry.

"I think they were mating," he said.

Two years ago, exploring a small tributary of Brazil's Rio Negro with my friend Mark Plotkin, I spotted a swirl in the water that looked like a fish feeding.

We cut the engine and tied to a tree branch just in time to see a pink river dolphin pop its head out of the water. Mark and I sat there for more than an hour and watched as the baby, along with its mama and papa, fished about 50 feet from our boat.

When we got back to our camp, my sister asked if we had seen anything interesting.

I couldn't hide my excitement. "Ahhh, you should have been there ... "

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